Lafe snuggled his stovepipe hat on his head, cocking it at a jaunty tilt before escorting Noelle to the coach.
But what about Geneva? asked Noelle as he handed her up to the seat.
What about her?
Why isnt she riding with us?
Lafe guffawed. Please, Cousin Noelle, just sit down and relax. Shes content where she is.
Horse feathers! Besides, I want to talk with her. She turned from him and called to the drays teamster. Sir—be so kind as to help that young woman down from there. Shell be joining us. The mans bushy brows arched in amazement, but he immediately leapt from his perch and raced to the rear of the wagon where he could lend Geneva a hand.
Cousin Noelle, said Lafe through clenched teeth. His voice took on a scolding tone—the same tone all the DArcys used whenever they displayed outrage. Darkies should never be allowed to ride in a fine carriage—beside whites—as if they were members of the upper class!
Says—says—the law of civilized society.
Then the law was created by ignorant baboons! How ridiculous.
Servants must not be treated as equals. Good God, people will think youre a Yankee abolitionist. A nigger-lover!
If your comment was aimed to wound, it did not hit its mark.
He waggled a chastising finger. I only say this because I dont want anything to cause you scandal or embarrassment.
How chivalrous, Cousin Lafe, said Noelle with a sardonic twitter. But I think my pride can withstand the ignorant finger-pointing and brickbats. How about yours?
My pride is secure! declared Lafe, puffing out his chest.
Splendid. Then why should Geneva have to ride in that uncomfortable position all the way to the harbor when she could be up here in this four-seater, stretching her legs and keeping me company?
A twinkle lit Lafes eyes, indicating a modification in battle tactics; his brazen smile suggested something more. But, my dear cousin—his voice lowered in a seductive timbre—I shall be riding beside you to keep you company.
Another good reason for Geneva to join them. Like one of those dimwitted Southern belles Madame Mintock utterly detested, Noelle placed a mock frown on her face and fluttered her lashes. Whats your point?
His thin lips pinched together, almost as if she had actually pricked him with a needle and deflated his ego. And it tickled her. Lafe, so accustomed to women falling under his spell, could afford to be taken down a few pegs.
Before he could form a rebuttal, Geneva came scampering up beside him. With battle lines clearly defined, his eyes held Noelles in a fierce, unsounded skirmish. But she was not about to capitulate. If Lafayette Bancroft DArcy thought her an effortless conquest, he had another thing coming. The independent Heloise Mintock had trained this student too well.
Just then, the barouches coachman intervened. He turned around in his seat, an open watch in his hand. Nearly ten o the clock, Mr. DArcy.
With a shudder of panic, Lafe threw up the white flag by breaking the stare. He grunted, then handed Geneva up to the carriage. Settling herself to one side of the rear leather seat, Noelle basked in her triumph. The icing on her victory cake arrived when Geneva plopped down beside her, requiring Lafe to take the seat behind the driver, facing them and looking utterly forlorn. And as added insurance, Noelle reached into her reticule and whipped out her mother-of-pearl fan. With it, she conveyed to her cousin just exactly where he stood with her. She held the fan before her face with her left hand—the signal to keep his distance. She also kept it moving at a rapid pace—a beacon of her independence. Lafe, having vast experience with the opposite sex, seemed to instantly catch her meaning and averted his eyes.
Yes, she thought with a grin, Madame Mintock had trained her to be a lady indeed.
Just after the carriage passed the Old Ursuline Convent and entered its adjoining intersection, a great hubbub poured out of the southeast where, a block beyond, the French Market stood at Decatur Street. Here also, congestion along Chartres Street intensified, and the barouches pace began to flag, indicating their nearness to the heart of the city. Despite the heavy French influence in this district, voices of diverse nationalities filled the air—German, Spanish, Italian, with a sprinkling of Polish and Haitian thrown in for good measure. A pianoforte tinkled from the open windows of one home, a fiddle squeaked from another, and a banjo twanged from somewhere around the corner, creating a medley of mismatched tunes. Street-hucksters boasting their miracle cure-alls, fish-peddlers tooting their reeking wares, and draymen exhorting ill-tempered curses to any pedestrian who dared hamper his progress by crossing the street, all lent their voices to the cacophony of city life. Nevertheless, like their slow-moving barouche winding its way through the chaos, Lafes forceful baritone carved a passage through the growing din when he demanded that their coachman make haste. With a shrug, the driver cracked his whip high above the heads of the team, but his efforts did little to hasten their journey.
Geneva took in all the sights, all the sounds with silent and wide-eyed wonder. Noelle, however, felt her irritation mounting when she caught Lafe again appraising her womanly shape before consulting his pocket watch for the umpteenth time. The steady tapping of his foot against the carriage floor had the power to drive her mad. But it was the view of the blackbirds, banking and wheeling in the distance around the triple spires of St. Louis Cathedral—Waiting for another chance to attack?—that pushed her to the breaking point, and loosened her tongue.
For pitys sake, Cousin Lafe. Staring at your watch will not halt the time! And glaring like a roué at my bosom will not win my affections, she wanted to add, but didnt.
He put on a martyred face. If we miss our ship, only Heaven knows when we can secure passage on another.
What difference does it make? Well get to Savannah when we get there!
I assumed you were looking forward to seeing your new home.
A home shadowed in mystery, she thought, and found herself watching the blackbirds in the distance. Beside her, Geneva stiffened; Noelle didnt even have to look at her to know she had also caught sight of the winged creatures. Yes—I mean, no—I mean—oh, Cousin Lafe, I dont know what I feel about Savannah. Please, just do me a favor and quit acting like a bridegroom whos late for his nuptials. Youre setting my nerves on edge.
What in the world could you be nervous abo— Then, his gaze flew to Geneva. A-ha! Ill wager the prophet of doom has been up to her no-good witchery again. Geneva, you are always so amusing. Though he said those words in a jestful tone, Noelle detected the flash of mockery in his eyes.
She knew that Lafe, among others—her mother included—had a difficult time taking the octoroon seriously, let alone tolerating her when she voiced warnings or performed odd rituals designed to bring about blessings. At times, even Noelle felt the girls superstitions and omens—bonnets left on mattresses, for example—bordered on the ludicrous. Yet after Genevas eerie foretelling of Zale Etheridges shipwreck, Noelle wanted to take no chances, feeling that perhaps a fair amount of truth lay in the old adage regarding an ounce of prevention. Whatever the case, Noelle loved Geneva, respected the girl for her beliefs in the supernatural, and Lafes ill-disguised scorn brought Noelles blood to a boil.
Dear, Geneva, resumed Lafe, his square jaw lifting in haughty disdain. What was it this time? Reading falderal in tea leaves? Discovering a chicken with three heads? Mayhap, four? He paused and turned in his seat, following Genevas gaze to the cathedral spires, now almost directly overhead as the carriage inched its way into Jackson Square. Blackbirds, is it? Well then, just what prediction of catastrophe did you utter to spook my beautiful and enchanting cousin? Again, those roguish eyes briefly touched on Noelles breasts before focusing on her face.
Before Geneva could respond, Noelle put forth an outlandish fabrication. The birds, Cousin Lafe? Oh, yes, they say a great many things, do they not, Geneva? They say I will one day meet a man—perhaps a man with the patience of a saint!—who has the power to sweep me off my feet.
Is that so? asked Lafe, his brow creasing in confusion, his foot drumming a frantic racket on the floorboards.
Noelle, who could almost see the wheels turning in Lafes towhead—How can I use this to my advantage? To make her another one of my conquests?—surrendered herself to a nasty impulse, one intended to cut off her cousin at the knees. And their black color suggests my future suitor will have a head of hair as glossy and dark as their feathers. Isnt that right, Geneva?
The girl, ever willing to play Noelles games, nodded her agreement. The corners of her mouth quirked, suggesting laughter would soon follow. After the way her cousin had ordered Geneva about since their arrival in New Orleans, Noelle supposed the girl couldnt resist going along with the childish ruse.
Noelle pressed on. The way theyre circling around the church indicates the man in my future will be a God-fearing man, strong enough to withstand the temptations of gambling, whiskey, and whatnot. And I do believe their spirited movement suggests, too, that he will be a man accustomed to physical toil.
Balderdash, snarled Lafe with marginally controlled rage. His cheeks burned the shade of oxblood, while his face took on the aspect of a spoiled child whose indulgent parent had just forbidden the intake of sweets between meals.
Tis the truth, Cousin Lafe. A patient and ebony-haired man, who is hard-working and free of vice is the only gentleman for me. At least, thats what the birds say. I wonder if such a rare catch exists in all of Savannah. So you see now why Im wracked with nerves?
Lafayette DArcy, looking absolutely stricken, huffed his disapproval. Noelle knew she had scorched his pride, and pulled a deep, satisfied breath. Yes, she thought for the second time that morning, this is one conquest he will never make. Still, a lengthy journey lay ahead of them, and a pouting cousin could make it feel like centuries, so she gave him a smile, hoping to lessen the sting and set everything to rights. And though his half-grin gave no indication whether he had forgiven her, at least it put an end to the conversation.
The barouche came to a standstill while the coachman waited for a break in the helter-skelter congestion. To Genevas apparent delight, Noelle took the opportunity to point out the sites of Jackson Square, still called by some the Place dArmes. On one side of the square loomed the ancient triple-crowned St. Louis Cathedral. The birds had disappeared, helping Noelle forget Genevas earlier warning. The clock in the center tower indicated the hour of half-past ten and sent Lafes foot to tapping once more, but this time Noelle managed to ignore him. The mansard-roofed Presbytère, originally built to house the priests, sat to the cathedrals left, while the old Spanish Cabildo with its frowning bulk flanked its right.
The Cabildo is where the transfer papers for the Louisiana Purchase were signed in 1803. And look over there, Geneva. Noelle pointed to the tree-lined square. In the center stood an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, his mount rearing its hind legs while the former president held his hat in the air, as if bidding either welcome or adieu to all passers-by. The Pontalba Apartments with their wrought-iron balcony rails, lined either side of the square, running along St. Pierre and St. Anne Streets. Madame Mintock told us that Baroness Micaela de Pontalba, herself, supervised the construction. Some say she even wielded a hammer on several occasions.
Why? asked Geneva.
Madame Mintock proposes the baroness wanted to shame the laborers into working faster. Whether true or not, the rumor had always impressed Noelle. She could almost picture a bejeweled and coiffured member of royalty, burdened by layers of petticoats and a gigantic hoop-skirt, rolling up her satin sleeves, pushing the lazy workcrew aside, and pounding nails into floorboards or walls. That, Geneva, is a strong woman at her best.
Lafe stirred in his seat. A foolish nymph at her best. Why any woman would want to act like a man is beyond my ken!
Perhaps to earn the appropriate respect.
Are you implying that I do not respect women?
No, Cousin, I believe you do. But only if they giggle and flirt and treat you like a prince.
Just what form of drivel did they teach you at that school? asked Lafe, shaking his head in indignation. Nothing but fiery sass and pepper has poured out of your mouth since my arrival! And all that abolitionist piffle. Why, its unladylike, it is! Fashioning your own clothing. Performing chores. If you maintain this stance, you will end up an old maid. That Madame of yours should be horsewhipped for filling your head with such poppycock! Crazy notions! Crazy!
Noelles first instinct was to issue a scathing rejoinder. As she fanned away a pesky horsefly, she could feel the confutation building in her throat, the poisonous words stinging her tongue, battling for release. But then she gave the matter serious thought. Was it worth it? Cousin Lafe would never understand Madame Mintocks manner of teaching. His sister, the sprightly and outspoken Salem DArcy, would understand, probably even applaud the Madame for her plucky efforts. But not Lafe. He was a product of his times, a young man with twenty-two years of antiquated notions regarding male superiority etched into his brain. Now, the smirk on his face indicated he had obviously mistaken her lengthy silence as a sign of his victory, a formal touché in their verbal sparring match. Though it irked her, she finally allowed him this one small triumph. Like the bedeviling horsefly she had recently batted aside, she mentally waved off her cousin, feeling it truly wasnt worth her effort.
Before long, the barouche turned onto Canal Street, the dividing line between the Vieux Carré and the Faubourg Ste. Marie, the American district of the city. Three blocks distant, a forest of moving smokestacks and masts broke the horizon. The sight of the harbor elicited from Lafe renewed fidgeting and another string of demands for the coachman to make haste. This time, the teamsters efforts paid off, and the barouche moved at a brisk pace along the tree-lined street to the harbor.
Looking like a moving body of creamed coffee, the brownish waters of the Mississippi carved a crescent-shaped bend in the river that gave the city its nickname. The air smacked of fish, loam, tar, cess, and horse dung. Overhead, gulls exchanged distant calls, while a blessed breeze poured off the water to snap Noelles skirt and dry her brow. Along the levee, for at least a mile in both directions, bales of cotton created Himalayas of fluffy whiteness. White gold, Noelle thought, recalling her fathers term for the Souths most profitable export. On wagon beds, upcountry timber stood in neatly stacked Shastas, while between warehouses, hogsheads of sugar formed mini-Everests of their own. Hundreds of dockwallopers swarmed over anchored freighters, offloading barrels of South American coffee or Georgia peanuts, cases of Mexican rum or French champagne, crates of Indian silk or Canadian fur.
The barouche finally came to a halt. Lafe, using his scarred right hand as a visor, scanned the line of waiting vessels, then pointed. There she is. The Swan of Grace. And good God, the gangplank is down. Passengers are boarding. Hurry. Hurry. As if propelled by a rocket, he leapt out of his seat and helped Noelle and Geneva alight from the carriage. Stevedores scurried forward and heaved the portmanteaux and trunks from the following dray. With characteristic impatience, Lafe clapped his hands and bullied the men to expedite their labors, then slipped an oil-skin wallet from his jacket and paid the coachman and drayman for their services.
All at once, Noelle had the insane urge to lose herself among the ever-shifting throngs of departing and debarking passengers, to hire a carriage that would whisk her back to Madame Mintock where she could live out the remainder of her life in the safety of her familiar room.
Yet if she succumbed to this temptation, to admit her defeat, could she live in peace? For a time, maybe—but forever? No, she theorized, the mystery of her banishment would also remain, and eventually, her unanswered questions would drive her to lunacy. Besides, didnt the Madame advise that she should look upon this voyage as an adventure, a journey of self-discovery? And didnt she also declare that Noelle possessed a hardy constitution? Yes, Noelle ruminated, the Madame did say that, and Heloise Mintock was a wise woman. So, with renewed courage, Noelle lifted her chin and shook off the notion to abscond, but not before voicing a silent prayer for her future.
Reluctantly, she obeyed her cousins vehement prodding and soon found herself climbing the Swan of Graces gangplank. We made it, said Lafe. His index finger tapped the open face of his pocket watch. And with nary a minute to spare. And you wonder why I was acting so impatiently. He cast Noelle a smug look. But I kept my word, did I not? And now I shall see to our accommodations. Then all will be right with the world.
As he hustled off on his latest mission, Noelle gave Geneva a wry smile, then rested her elbows against the rails. She pulled a deep, cleansing breath and felt herself foolish for her earlier caprice to flee. Perhaps, like Madame Mintock, Lafe was right—once the voyage gets under way, all will be right with the world.
But even as she tried to convince herself of that, she spotted the line of blackbirds, perched on the rooftop of a harbor warehouse, as if bidding her a final farewell.
What? asked Noelle, forking up the last mouthful of chicken in aspic. She had been preoccupied throughout the meal. With memories of the blackbirds still fresh in her mind she had much to ponder. According to Geneva, the beasts signified trouble—An omen of calamity, she had said that morning. But what exactly? The octoroon either didnt know or refused to comment. Noelle had hoped for a chance to return to her stateroom where Geneva, who was in the process of unpacking, could be questioned further. Now, Lafes voice had interrupted Noelles train of thought and it annoyed her. Did you say something about nightfall?
Lafe took a long draught of his Pouilly-Fuissé, then used a napkin to dab moisture from the corners of his thin mouth. I was speaking of Forts Jackson and St. Phillip. The halfway point between New Orleans and the gulf.
What about them?
The Swan is keeping splendid time. We should cover that distance by dusk, then reach the gulf come morning, dont you think? His hand fumbled at the pocket of his waistcoat.
Cousin Lafe, if you pull out that blasted watch yet again, I promise you, I will scream.
An amused expression crossed his face. I wouldnt mind in the least. Why, youve barely uttered a syllable since the meal commenced. A scream might actually prove that I have been in the company of a person and not just some empty—though beautiful—shell. As if to goad Noelle to carry out her threat, he yanked the timepiece from his pocket and flicked open the cover. But his eyes stayed locked on hers, sending a challenge. No outcry? Dear Cousin, you must learn to withhold promises you have no intention to honor.
For an instant, she wondered how he would react if she did unleash the blood-curdling shriek gathering in her throat. Had they been alone, she might have done it just to see his face turn purple and his lips disappear. But surrounded by elegant diners and tray-burdened stewards, her instinct for decorum outweighed her childish desire. Lafe had won this round in their ongoing battle, and worse, his visage testified that he knew it. He smiled, then as she expected, glanced at the open watch before cramming it back into its hiding place.
I declare, Cousin Lafe, your obsession with time is an infuriating habit. If you are in such a hurry to return to the east coast, why in Heavens name are you playing the role of my escort?
Aunt Rachelle. How could I have refused her charming request? As you know, your mother has always been a persuasive woman. Besides, you have no brothers, and since I am your only cousin of the male persuasion, I felt it my obligation.
Noelle rolled her eyes and corralled the urge to laugh in his handsome face. Lafayette DArcy, though putting forth the air of a charitable gentleman, had never been one to give of himself freely. Even Lafes deceased father, Ignace, had known his sons true character. On more than one occasion, Noelle had overheard her uncle state that Lafe would gladly give a beggar the shirt off his back, but only if the pauper had two shirts to give in return—and of superior quality. Therefore, Noelle suspected her cousin had agreed to escort her with the hope of gaining another conquest. Or more than likely, her mother had offered him a cash incentive which would undoubtedly come in handy at the gambling halls.
Oh, my dear cousin, said Noelle, you are always the willing gallant.
Always, replied Lafe with an arrogant lift of his square jaw, outwardly oblivious to her sarcasm. He took up his wine; his signet ring made a rhythmic clink—clink—clink as he rolled the glass back and forth between his hands. Now then, will you tell me whats bothering you or are you planning to keep me in suspense?
Nothings bothering me. Even as she spoke, she knew her snappish tone betrayed her.
You have been edgy all morning. Argumentative, as well. Have I done or said something to offend you? If it was my earlier remark comparing you to my sister, I humbly apologize.
No need. In truth, I took that as a compliment.
He harrumphed. As much as I still possess love in my heart for Salem, I cannot help but see her for the profligate woman she has become. With her shameless vagaries, she has disgraced this family time and again. Im certain her antics have kept my poor parents spinning in their graves. Why anyone would place her on a pedestal and hope to emulate her is beyond me!
Noelle seized the napkin from her lap and hurled it onto her empty plate. You say you love Salem, yet fling brickbats at ease. You, Lafayette DArcy, are a first-rate hypocrite.
You dare chastise Cousin Salem for her—her—indiscretions? Take a long look in a mirror.
Her surly comment appeared not to ruffle him. Instead, he used his left index finger to trace the saber scar on his right hand, as if polishing a badge of honor. A gentleman is expected to have a few—shall I say, romantic dalliances?—in his youth.
And a woman with a similar past is nothing more than a demimondaine? Is that what youre implying?
At least my name hasnt made unsavory headlines throughout Europe and the States. Indeed, reporters from Paris to Washington City seem to know more about Salems comings and goings than the Lord above, and they print every detail of her scandalous behavior.
The standards of gentlemen! said Noelle in disgust, pointing to his scar. Supposed gentlemen! It would serve many a gentleman right to have his dirty laundry aired for all to see. Instead, you receive pats on the back for your victorious seductions and fight duels to maintain your honor, whereas women like Cousin Salem are branded malefactors and made to feel like outcasts. Noelle paused. Perhaps this was why she felt empathy for Salem DArcy; both of them had been rejected by their families. The only difference was that Salem knew the reason behind her banishment. You call your sister shameless? A patriarchal society with flexible standards for men and stringent mores for women—I call that shameless!
Small pools of crimson formed in Lafes cheeks. He guzzled his remaining wine, then snapped his fingers. When a steward instantly appeared to pour another glass of Pouilly-Fuissé, Lafe remained silent, his eyes fixed on Noelle. He downed another mouthful of the white Burgundy before breaking his gaze. I did not originate the standards of modern society, Cousin Noelle. Tis simply the ways of the world.
But you and those of your kind help to perpetuate them.
My kind? His manicured nails drummed the tabletop. Why must you persist on treating me like an uncouth rapscallion? I am hardly the enemy.
And why do you persist on treating me—all women, rather—like mindless nymphs?
How have I done that?
Criticizing Madame Mintock and her school, for one. Having the effrontery to reprimand me about Geneva, for another. And—
I shall relent, said Lafe, raising a hand in concession, that upon leaving the boarding school some of my words may have stung you. Alas, twas not my intention. But you must realize that the Madames peculiar curriculum borders on the—well—the absurd. Proper young ladies taught to become nothing more than scullery maids? Preposterous! A woman of your status will have little need for such skills. And as for Geneva, I simply feel you should consider your actions carefully when it comes to treating that—that—spooky servant like an equal. In less than a single day, shes managed to plant some crazy notion in your head. Something about me, I assume?
Not everything in life has to do with the great Lafayette DArcy.
Then what has caused this jumpiness, this petulance? If you speak your mind, perhaps I can help settle your nerves.
Noelle drew a sip from her own wine glass, buying time while she considered his offer. Savannah—Destiny Plantation—her mother and stepfather. Even as numerous questions formed on her tongue, Noelle felt a reluctance to voice them. Though Lafe might be able to provide some answers, his smirk indicated he already thought whatever fears she may possess were unfounded, just the trepidation of a fatuous female. Besides, her situation gave her enormous embarrassment. How could she admit that seven letters in the span of four years time was the extent of her mothers correspondence? And worse, how could she question Lafe without advertising her near-total ignorance regarding the world of Savannah and the inner-workings of her immediate family? To the proudful young woman she had become, the mere idea caused her to shudder. The last thing she wanted was to appear weak in his eyes, thus furnishing him with another victory in their ongoing battle of wits. No, she decided, she would try once more to interrogate Geneva. Only if her attempt failed would she then consider swallowing her pride and airing her concerns to this supercilious man.
Thank you, but never mind, said Noelle, rising from her seat. Lafe began to stand, but she gestured him down. No need to escort me to my stateroom. Women, you see, can do a few things for themselves.
His galling chuckle followed her all the way to the door.
With Geneva at her side, Noelle spent the remainder of the afternoon on deck enjoying the cool, vigorous breezes and watching Louisianas winged denizens going about the business of survival. All along the stagnant bayous or sandy beaches, plump white herons pecked away at the ground for food, while red-beaked ibises dapped fish from the water. Gulls playfully chased each other from Louisiana to the Mississippi shore, then back again. Noelle also took the time to study her fellow travelers, well-appointed gentlemen and ladies who strolled along the rail, taking in the sights and chittering away the hours. Each seemed to radiate an aura of peace, as if the journey ahead offered a welcome respite from the hustle of everyday living. And to Noelles surprise, their contagious smiles and relaxed manners began to infect her. Already under the influence of Mother Natures finest gifts, she gradually felt herself in a blissful limbo, caught somewhere between the comfortable boarding-school existence she had known and the mysterious world of Savannah she had yet to experience. Before long, the mornings troubling ruminations abandoned her altogether, and not one blackbird appeared to destroy her newfound serenity.
But by the following morning, everything changed.
Time had faded the four-year-old memory of her last ocean voyage. Only after the Swan of Grace deserted the brownish waters of the Mississippi for the crisp-blue water of the open sea did a recollection come flooding back, as swift and as fierce as a summer storm—
Despite the calm water and balmy temperature, Noelle Etheridge felt like death. Even prayed for that very fate in several of her weaker moments. Ironic, she thought, that the daughter of a shipping merchant—a man who had spent the better part of his life aboard great sailing vessels—should forever be plagued by this hateful malady. This personal hell of nausea, dizziness, chilling sweats. Yet, here she was in her stateroom for the third day running, curled up under a blanket, a bucket at the ready beside her pallet, her stomach performing somersaults. Indeed, if Madame Mintock could see her now, she would likely recant her opinion regarding Noelles hardy constitution.
Another benne wafer? asked Geneva, hunkering beside the bed and mopping the perspiration from Noelles brow. Your tummys been pretty cooperative at keepin them down today. Must have been that carminative balsam I gave you last night. Do you feel better at all?
A little, croaked Noelle after taking a brief mental inventory.
Good. I promise youll be right as rain in no time. After all, I told you what I found in the passageway this mornin just after the steward delivered the wafers—a thimble. A silver thimble! Sparklin on the floor in front of this very stateroom, mind you. And you know what that means—good blessins, sure enough.
Noelle couldnt help but grin. She voiced her thanks.
You hush now. Aint no need to thank me. Geneva gave her a wink, then plopped down in a nearby chair and took up her darning needles. Noelles heart surged with affection for the girl. Like a devoted watchdog, Geneva had insisted on staying at her side, even spent her nights sleeping in that very chair in lieu of a pallet. And as much as Lafe had huffed and puffed, no amount of arguing could get Geneva to leave her mistress for more than a few minutes at a stretch. The octoroon had been adamant—any work Lafe had insisted on giving her would have to be accomplished in Noelles stateroom or it simply would not get done. Thereafter, Lafe had taken the girl at her word, having her black his boots, polish his jewelry, and tend to other incidentals like darning his socks.
Now, Noelle looked upon the scene and felt a twinge of anger. My cousin has no business ordering you to do that. I shall have a word with him when he comes by to check on my welfare.
Too late, answered Geneva, the metallic click of the darning needles punctuating her words. Hes already done come and gone.
First thing this mornin when you was still sleepin. And I spose you can guess why he came so early?
Poker begins early on Saturday?
Probably, said Geneva with a snicker. But I was referrin instead to yesterdays incident.
Noelle remembered. After an afternoon of gambling in the gentlemans saloon, Lafe had paid his daily call and found Noelle awake. But after a moment of small talk, she caught a whiff of his breath—a lethal combination of tobacco, whiskey, and onions—which instantly activated her gag reflex and sent her delicate stomach into overdrive. Suffice it to say that after she unintentionally left her mark on his natty clothing, Lafe hastily left the room, red-faced and glaring at her like an offended minor god. At that moment, Noelle had been too ill to feel much of anything, let alone embarrassment. But now, with a clearer head, what she truly felt was a ripple of mirth. Even without trying, she was continuing her campaign to chip away at Lafes massive ego.
Genevas wide smile voiced her mutual amusement. Hes afraid youll soil him again. You have finally managed to do the impossible, Miz Noelle. It will certainly be a month of Sundays before that sweet-talkin cousin of yours gets any more randy notions in his head about you.
Noelle hoped she could be as certain. I think you should try my tactics, Geneva. Perhaps then you might not be saddled with all his menial demands.
Heck, I dont mind. What else is there to do anyway?
Why dont you read to me? suggested Noelle. Despite the laws forbidding it, Geneva, under Noelles tutelage, had learned to read at an early age. On countless evenings, the girls would abandon their cozy beds to sit before the fireplace with a copy of McGuffeys Reading Primer between them, living in fear that someone would discover their secret. But only Zale Etheridge had stumbled upon this midnight ritual. And though he voiced a mild reprimand and shooed them back to their beds, his eyes spoke silent approval when he gave his daughter a good-night kiss. Never in her life had Noelle felt so proud. I have a book of Browning in one of my trunks. Dickens latest also.
Miz Noelle, as much as Id enjoy that, I must refuse. In your weary condition, readin will put you to sleep, and I wants you up and alert so you can eat some more of them wafers.
Ailin or not, you need to build up your strength and you aint had nearly enough.
Genevas refusal to read provided an opportunity for Noelle to make another suggestion. I promise Ill eat another wafer, Geneva, if you tell me all about Savannah. Weve got time now, and I guarantee the topic will keep me alert.
The darning needles stopped clicking. Genevas mouth pinched. Taint much to tell. Land sakes, you keep bomdardin me with questions and—
No, said Noelle, adopting another strategy. Asking specifics had gotten her nowhere. But if Geneva was allowed to talk at her own rate, following her own path of words, than Noelle might glean some pertinent information about the life awaiting her. No questions this time. Just talk. She snatched a wafer from the nearby tray. And I promise Ill eat.
That there is blackmail, that is, said Geneva, but the twinkle in her dark eyes mitigated her stinging tone. She settled into her chair and plied the needles to the stocking. Whether it was sympathy for Noelles condition or something more that drove Geneva to talk without further protest, Noelle did not know, nor question. All she cared about was receiving any morsel of information to satiate her starving curiosity.
According to Genevas roundabout rambling, Destiny Plantation stood a few miles outside the city of Savannah proper along the Vernon River, its 5400 acres devoted chiefly to the cultivation of cotton. Typical of them grand manses, with its giant columns, large and airy rooms, and bountiful gardens. Generally pleasant, though the weather is hotter than Hades in the summertime, not unlike Charleston. Noelle chanced a question about her room. A corner room on the second floor with a view of the river, replied Geneva. Just outside your piazza door is a sturdy trellis, all smothered in vines of white moonflowers which fill your room with a delicate fragrance every night. Your mama chose the room specially for you. Even furnished it with many of your things from the old house.
Noelle, who thought the news thus far pleasant, happily munched on another wafer without prodding. She learned from Geneva that her stepfather owned more than 200 slaves, who generally resided in quarters a half-mile from the mainhouse. The tidings caused Noelle to tense. But where do you sleep, Geneva?
In the attic with the other house servants. Directly above your room, in fact.
Noelle relaxed. She could not fathom spending time in a strange house without her friend nearby, nor would she have tolerated the girl residing in drafty quarters. And the other servants? How do you get along?
When a momentary frown appeared on Genevas forehead, Noelle felt she had asked one question too many. But to her relief, the octoroon continued, though not in the same breezy manner. Most are good people, said Geneva, her words coming slow, even hesitant. Some better than others, and some— She drew a long breath. A ghost of a frown returned. Yes, most are good people.
Noelle sensed that no matter how many more wafers she consumed, Geneva would not yield any additional information. Still, she ventured another question. My mother did mention someone by the name of Tobias—another house servant?
Genevas eyes stayed glued to her darning, but Noelle thought she saw the girls fingers twitch. He is.
What is his position? Apparently Mother thinks he is the be-all and end-all in household management.
Absolute silence ensued. Now, Noelle was certain she had destroyed any hope of further disclosures. As Genevas small bosom rose and fell in an unsteady cadence, the creases in her brow deepened, then remained, as if permanently etched there to mar the girls beauty for all time. Without warning, she flung Noelle a hot look. You watch out for Tobias, you hear?
The warning, injected with such poisonous vehemence, so took Noelle by surprise that she flinched. The half-eaten wafer in her hand disintegrated, sending snowflakes of crumbs into the blanket. W—why?
Just do, muttered Geneva, practically spitting out the syllables. She tossed aside the sock and darning needles, then rocketed from the chair and tromped to the door. Before exiting the stateroom, she turned to face Noelle. Please, Miz Noelle—just see that you do.
Then in a flash she was gone, giving Noelle time to ponder this latest intrigue.